Thursday, February 18, 2010

Obama speaks to PM; condemns Pune blast

US President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and condemned last week's terror blast in Pune that has claimed 11 lives.

 In the brief telephonic conversation, Obama condoled the loss of lives, the Prime Minister's Office said. 

 "The two leaders took the opportunity to review developments in Indo-US relations," it said. 

 The Obama administration has offered FBI help in the investigation into Saturday's blast at the German Bakery, a popular eatery in Pune's posh Koregaon Park area.

The US State Department has said it is working with India and Pakistan to combat the threats the three countries face from terrorist and extremist groups.

 "The information we have shared so far has been quite unprecedented, and we intend to continue to working with the Government of India to try and protect our two societies from these types of attacks," Acting US State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid said.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Unrest in Indian Kashmir enters 2nd week

, India -- Authorities put separatist leaders under house arrest and thousands of armed troops in riot gear warned people to stay indoors in Indian Kashmir's main city Monday in an attempt to block a seventh day of violent demonstrations against Indian rule.

Widespread unrest has rocked the disputed Himalayan region for the past week, as protesters have taken to the streets in anger over the deaths of two teenage boys they say were killed by police and government forces.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the main separatist alliance in Indian Kashmir, had called for protesters to march Monday to the local United Nations office in Srinagar, the region's main city, but it was unclear if the demonstration would go ahead.

"All our leaders have been either placed under house arrest or arrested ahead of the rally," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader, in a telephone interview from his home. Police also confirmed the arrests.

The government has banned the assembly of more than four people in Srinagar in an attempt to suppress the protests.

Shops, business and government offices in the city remained closed for a seventh day and government forces erected steel barricades and laid razor wire on the roads leading to the U.N. office.

The protests started after a 14-year-old boy died after he was struck in the head by a police tear gas shell as an anti-Indian protest ended last Sunday. The police officer who fired the shell was suspended and police called it "a callous and irresponsible action."

Then on Friday, witnesses said paramilitary soldiers charged at a group of people gathered on a playground and began firing as they fled, killing a 17 year old. Hemant Lohia, a top police officer, confirmed that the boy died from a bullet wound but said details about his death were still under investigation.

Clashes between protesters and government forces since have injured at least 93 protesters and 33 troops in the region. Another 80 protesters have been arrested.

Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the Himalayan region, where more than a dozen rebel groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989.

More than 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the uprising and the subsequent Indian crackdown.

Iran's Two-Edged Bomb

WITH Iran having notified the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency on Monday that any day now it will begin enriching its stockpile of uranium in order to power a medical reactor, we should admit that Washington’s approach to countering the Islamic Republic is leading nowhere. What’s needed, however, may be less of a change of plan than a change in how we view the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Believe it or not, there are some potential benefits to the United States should Iran build a bomb. (I’m speaking for myself here, and in no way for the Air Force.) Five possibilities come to mind.

First, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would give the United States an opportunity to finally defeat violent Sunni-Arab terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Here’s why: a nuclear Iran is primarily a threat to its neighbors, not the United States. Thus Washington could offer regional security — primarily, a Middle East nuclear umbrella — in exchange for economic, political and social reforms in the autocratic Arab regimes responsible for breeding the discontent that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Until now, the Middle East autocracies have refused to change their ways because they were protected by the wealth of their petroleum reserves. A nuclear Iran alters the regional dynamic significantly, and provides some leverage for us to demand reforms.

Second, becoming the primary provider of regional security in a nuclear Middle East would give the United States a way to break the OPEC cartel. Forcing an end to the sorts of monopolistic practices that are illegal in the United States would be the price of that nuclear shield, bringing oil prices down significantly and saving billions of dollars a year at the pump. Or, at a minimum, President Obama could trade security for increased production and a lowering of global petroleum prices.

Third, Israel has made clear that it feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear program. The Palestinians also have a reason for concern, because a nuclear strike against Israel would devastate them as well. This shared danger might serve as a catalyst for reconciliation between the two parties, leading to the peace agreement that has eluded the last five presidents. Paradoxically, any final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would go a long way to undercutting Tehran’s animosity toward Israel, and would ease longstanding tensions in the region.

Fourth, a growth in exports of weapons systems, training and advice to our Middle Eastern allies would not only strengthen our current partnership efforts but give the American defense industry a needed shot in the arm.

With the likelihood of austere Pentagon budgets in the coming years, Boeing has been making noise about shifting out of the defense industry, which would mean lost American jobs and would also put us in a difficult position should we be threatened by a rising military power like China. A nuclear Iran could forestall such a catastrophe.

Last, the United States would be able to stem the flow of dollars to autocratic regimes in the region. It would accomplish this not only by driving down the price of oil and increasing arms exports, but by requiring the beneficiaries of American security to bear a real share of its cost. And in the long run, a victory in the war on terrorism would save taxpayers the tens of billions of dollars a year now spent on overseas counterinsurgency operations.

What about the downside — that an unstable, anti-American regime would be able to start a nuclear war? Actually, that’s less of a risk than most people think. Unless the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and his Guardian Council chart a course that no other nuclear power has ever taken, Iran should become more responsible once it acquires nuclear weapons rather than less. The 50-year standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States was called the cold war thanks to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons.

There is reason to believe that the initial shock of a nuclear Iran would soon be followed a new regional dynamic strikingly like that of cold-war Europe. Saudi Arabia and Iraq would be united along with their smaller neighbors by their fear of Iran; the United States would take the lead in creating a stable regional security environment. In addition, our reluctant European allies, and possibly even China and Russia, would have a much harder time justifying sales of goods and technology to Tehran, further isolating the Islamic Republic.

Iran may think its enrichment plans will put fear into the hearts of Americans. In fact, it should give us hopes of a renaissance of American influence in the Middle East.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Obama adviser: Stop criticizing anti-terror effort

President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser said Sunday that lawmakers and others are using national security to score political points and defended the handling of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner.

Deputy national security adviser John Brennan complained that politicians, many of them Republicans, were unfairly criticizing the administration for partisan purposes and second-guessing the case with a "500-mile screwdriver" that reaches from Washington to the scene of the abortive attack in Detroit.

Brennan said he had personally briefed top GOP lawmakers on Christmas night about the arrest of accused bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and that none of them raised objections.

"There's been quite a bit of an outcry after the fact, where again, I'm just very concerned on behalf of counterterrorism professionals throughout our government, that politicians continue to make this a political football and are using it for whatever political or partisan purposes," he said.

Among those he said he briefed were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio; and the top Republicans on the congressional intelligence committees, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri and Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan.

"None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point," Brennan said.

Republicans have been outspoken in criticizing the administration for treating Abdulmutallab as a civilian and reading him his rights.

Brennan said that Abdulmutallab was treated no differently than any other terror suspect arrested on U.S. soil and that the FBI and others involved in his arrest acted appropriately.

"I think those counterterrorism professionals deserve the support of our Congress," he said. "And rather than second-guessing what they are doing on the ground with a 500- mile screwdriver from Washington to Detroit, I think they have to have confidence in the knowledge and the experience of these counterterrorism professionals."

Brennan spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press."

By MATTHEW LEE - Associated Press Writer

Hostile groups operating from across the border: Manmohan

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Sunday that hostile groups and elements were operating “from across the border to perpetrate terrorist acts in our country, and Jammu and Kashmir bears the brunt of the acts of these groups.”

There was a marked decline in the number of terrorist incidents in Jammu and Kashmir from 2008 to 2009, he said, but expressed concern at the increase in the number of infiltration bids.

Among the other major threats to the country’s security were insurgency and violence in the northeast and left-wing extremism, he said, inaugurating the Chief Ministers’ conference on internal security here.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram described the Pakistan-based terror groups as “dark forces,” which were “implacably” opposed to India. They would be defeated whenever confronted, he said.

In his opening statement, he said such militant groups as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen staged a meeting at Muzaffarabad in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on Thursday. “Their weapons are mayhem and violence, and their goal is forcible annexation of Kashmir. Let me make it clear that these dark forces will not succeed in their designs,” Mr. Chidambaram said.

The observations of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister come at a time when India has offered to resume talks with Pakistan. The talks have remained suspended after the Mumbai terror attacks.

Cautioning against the forces that were trying to divide society on communal and regional lines, Dr. Singh said: “Each one of these threats requires a strong effort, determination, hard work and continuous vigilance to tackle. These threats to our society, to our polity and our country constitute a challenge that we must and we shall meet effectively at all costs.”

courtesy:The Hindu

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Twin blasts in Karachi kills 25

: Two bomb blasts in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, apparently targeting Shia Muslims marking a
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religious ceremony, killed at
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least 25 people and injured about 80 others on Friday.
The first attack occurred when a motorcycle rigged with explosives targeted a bus carrying Shias to a religious procession on Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road of the country’s commercial centre, killing 12 people and wounding close to 50 others. Among the dead were several children and women, said Dr Seemin Jamali, head of the emergency department at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi.
Two hours after the first explosion, as the wounded were being brought into Jinnah Hospital, a second blast shattered the emergency ward, killing at least 13 including those wounded in the first blast, along with doctors, paramedics and rescuers. It left 30 others injured. The second attack was also caused by an explosive-laden motorcycle in the hospital’s parking lot. A large number of relatives of the first blast victims were present at the time of the second explosion.
Panic and fear gripped the hospital after the explosion, affecting the paramedical staff and media persons and throwing rescue efforts out of gear. As the Jinnah hospital was sealed off, the injured from the two blasts were then rushed to Civil Hospital and other private hospitals of the city.
The bus attacked in the first explosion was carrying Shia Muslim mourners to participate in a religious procession to mark the end of the holy month of Muharram in Karachi, a city of 16 million people. Friday was the last and most important day of the Shia religious ritual. Shias in Pakistan are marking Arbaeen — the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad who was killed in a 7th Century battle in Karbala.
The bus was one of dozens used to transport Shias from across the city to a central procession. But the attacker on Friday chose a different target, away from the security cordon. The motorcycle which rammed into the bus was completely destroyed, said police officer Shahid Hasan.
City police chief Waseem Ahmad told reporters that the motorcycle was rigged with an improvised-explosive device. It remained unclear whether the motorcycle was being driven by anyone when it struck the bus. Karachi has had a history of violence for the past two decades. Other than ethnic and political tensions, sectarian disputes between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims regularly rears its head

Teenager dies as protests rock Indian Kashmir

Police were investigating the reported shooting death of a teenager in the capital of Indian Kashmir on Friday, an officer said, an incident that threatens to enflame protests that have rocked the city this week following the death of another boy.
Mushtaq Ahmed, a witness, said paramilitary soldiers charged at a group gathered in a playground in Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir, and began firing as they fled, killing his friend Zahid Farooq Shah, 17.
Police official Hemant Lohia confirmed the death of Shah and said police were investigating.
"It's an unfortunate incident. We're gathering information from the area to know what exactly happened," Lohia said.
The government has banned the assembly of more than four people in Srinagar in an attempt to suppress protests which broke out after another teenage boy was killed when he was hit by a police tear gas shell Sunday.
Elsewhere in the city on Friday, angry mobs hurled rocks at police who fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse them.
At least 80 protesters have been arrested in Srinagar over the past two days, said Sajad Ahmed, a police officer.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. Separatists, including armed rebels, seek Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with neighboring Pakistan.
More than 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the violence in the region over the past two decades.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Obama says U.S. not to designate N. Korea terrorism sponsor

The United States has concluded that North Korea does not meet the criteria to again be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism based on its examination of the North's conduct, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.

Japan had previously hinted that it expected the United States to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but a senior Foreign Ministry official said in Tokyo on Thursday that the matter is for the U.S. government to decide.

"The Japanese government will refrain from making any comments on the decision," State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Koichi Takemasa told a regular press conference.

He also noted, "The U.S. government basically sees the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism as a symbolic thing and it continues to impose tough sanctions on North Korea."

In a letter addressed to congressional leaders, Obama said that the North does not meet the criteria to be designated once again in terms of its actions from June 2008 to November 2009.

The decision comes after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a television interview in June last year that the United States was considering placing North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism in response to Pyongyang's nuclear test in May.

The United States announced in June 2008 that it would remove North Korea from the blacklist as part of efforts to move forward the six- party talks aimed at disbanding the North's nuclear arsenal. The North was removed from the list in October the same year.

Takemasa said that Japan will continue to cooperate with the United States in dealing with North Korea and in realizing the resumption of the stalled multilateral talks that also involve South Korea, China and Russia.

India, Kuwait to set up jt mechanism on combating terrorism

Underlining the need to exchange information on terror groups, India and Kuwait have decided to set up a joint mechanism to combat the scourge of terrorism.

The decision to set up 'India-Kuwait Joint Mechanism on Combating International Terrorism' came following a series of meetings External Affairs Minister S M Krishna had with Kuwaiti leaders here.

The discussions on terrorism centred around the need to exchange information on how terror groups operate as well as the question of how the nexus exists among them. We have agreed on setting up an India-Kuwait Joint Mechanism on Combating International Terrorism, Krishna, who is the first External Affairs Minister to visit Kuwait since 1992, said.

The well-being of India and that of this region are inter-linked. We have a vested interest to see that we live in surroundings that are calm, where our peoples have the opportunity to develop and prosper in the shadow of peace, he said. Besides terrorism, Krishna discussed with Kuwaiti leaders issues related to developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan, energy security, Middle East peace process, developments in Iraq and Iran, UN Security Council reforms, culture and people-to-people contacts.

Pentagon seeks billions to battle terror abroad

The Obama administration is seeking billions in budget increases to target terror threats from abroad, especially Pakistan and Yemen, with boosts for surveillance and attack drones, special operations forces and a new military cyber command.

The focus is on regions that have served as insurgent sanctuaries, where U.S. counterterror officials say the next attack against America is likely being planned.

Pentagon aid to Pakistan would balloon to $1.2 billion in 2011, aimed at bolstering its war on internal militants. And military funding to target al-Qaida could double in Yemen, where the U.S. spent more than $6 million last year just on aerial surveillance provided by drones, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The rise in proposed counterterror spending reflects a new urgency within the administration, dovetailing with warnings this week from top intelligence officials of a possible terror strike from abroad within the next six months.

The boost in Pentagon funding would also target a wider array of enemies, from al-Qaida and allied militant networks and dangerous nation-states, to sophisticated computer hackers and homegrown insurgents armed with dirty bombs.

Pentagon and White House officials would not put an overall total on the amount of money in this week's proposed budget aimed at countering terrorists abroad. Much of that funding is hidden behind classified budgets, including the unacknowledged CIA effort to use drone-launched missiles to target al-Qaida and other militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But one indication of the sweep of increased spending is evident in a massive Pentagon account used to provide training, equipment and other assistance to foreign militaries. Under President Barack Obama's budget proposal, that fund would increase from $350 million in 2010 to $500 million in 2011.

Documents obtained by the AP show that the account was used this year to provide counterterrorism aid, training and other programs to countries ranging from Bangladesh and Nigeria to Lebanon and Pakistan. The money paid for training, surveillance activities, aircraft, radar, communications equipment and other resources.

Administration and military officials noted that total U.S. counterterror funding also stretches well beyond the visible military aid. It is parceled into economic development, diplomacy and other socio-economic spending that is designed to stabilize and strengthen countries where insurgents take root.

In Pakistan, an already-growing counterinsurgency fund would jump from $700 million combined in 2009 and 2010, to $1.2 billion in 2011. That money would include expanded efforts by special operations forces to train and equip Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps near the lawless border region that hides al-Qaida and internal militants.

On Wednesday three U.S. special operations soldiers who were participating in that low-profile program were killed and two others wounded in a roadside bomb attack. They were the first known U.S. casualties in northwest Pakistan's tribal area along the Afghanistan border.

U.S. officials have said they hope to train more than 9,000 members of the Frontier Corps, and slash their previous four-year training time by half. The Frontier Corps is considered a critical ally in rooting out al-Qaida leaders hiding in the mountainous border region.

The Pentagon's overseas funding — aimed at bolstering the ability of allied governments to stabilize and defend their nations — also is providing four helicopters at a cost of nearly $80 million and spending about $13 million on ground-based surveillance for Pakistan.

In Yemen, where al-Qaida elements are suspected of aiding in the Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner by a Nigerian suspect, American counterterror funding is expected to more than double, from $67 million in the past year to as much as $140 million.

"It's obvious to us," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress this week, that "helping (Yemen's leaders) build their own capabilities in lieu of eventually perhaps having to have U.S. forces present on the ground in substantial numbers or doing this ourselves is clearly much cheaper and much better for us."

Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, has said he believes the Yemen funding will double. But Pentagon officials said Wednesday there have been no final decisions and the money allocated for this year has not begun to flow.

According to documents, the aid that began flowing to Yemen last year included almost $6 million for aerial surveillance. That figure would include flights of pilotless drones — which have been critical to the recent increase in Yemeni operations against insurgent leaders.

Another $6 million was spent on counterterrorism and efforts to defeat roadside bombs. The bulk of the remaining money was used to fund border and maritime security in Yemen, which is separated by the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, a haven in recent years for seagoing pirates.

The Pentagon also spent $10 million over the past year to help Ethiopia build counterterrorism platoons. The U.S. has worked with Ethiopia in the past to counter the rise of militants in neighboring Somalia, which is endangered by the al-Shabab terror faction, now allied with al-Qaida.

Special operations forces would also get more money and provide for more troops under the new budget proposal. U.S. Special Operations Command would get an additional $800 million — going from $9 billion in 2010 to $9.8 billion in 2011.

The plan would also add 3,651 more civil affairs and psychological operations forces and 4,027 combat and combat service support troops to the special operations forces by 2015. Military officials could not say how much those added personnel would cost.

There are currently about 2,500 psychological operations forces and 900 civil affairs troops assigned to Special Operations Command.

To augment counterterror operations, the Pentagon is also looking to dramatically expand its surveillance and strike capabilities. The proposed budget would double the number of unmanned Reaper drones over the next two years — from 24 in this fiscal year to 48 in 2012.

Use of the drones by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hotspots has skyrocketed in recent years.

Also moving up in priority, cyber threats will consume more of the federal budget in 2011 than ever before — including the launch of the military's new Cyber Command.

Pentagon officials are asking for $139 million — compared to about $34 million this year — to set up temporary facilities for the new command at Fort Meade in Maryland, and will spend an additional $59 million on personnel and operations.

Defense policy chief Michele Flournoy said the Defense Department has to better organize itself to deal with cyber challenges, both offensive and defensive.

Pentagon officials rarely discuss the nation's capability for offensive cyber strikes, but as the U.S. is increasingly targeted from abroad, they are growing more open about that prospect.

"There's a lot of ongoing activities," Vice Adm. Stephen Stanley told reporters when asked about cyber operations during a briefing on the budget.

"We're establishing defenses. We are involved in exploitation activities," he added. "And we're positioning ourselves in order to be able to conduct attacks. So all of those different areas are ongoing. The cyber command focuses it and establishes the structure that we'll use in the future."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another Terrorist Attack in US; National Intelligence Director is "Certain"

The heads of several intelligence agencies met before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday to discuss matters of national security. When asked how sure he was regarding an imminent attack against the U.S. in the next three to six months, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair uttered he was "certain". Blair was accompanied by CIA Director Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Each of the directors agreed with Blair's comment; the liklihood of another terrorist attack was most definately "certain". This comes just weeks after the failed Christmas day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.

While none of the intelligence experts could provide a specific threat, each acknowledged an evolving al Qaeda terrorist network as their top concern. CIA Director Leon Panetta says, "My greatest concern, and what keeps me awake at night, is that al Qaeda and its terrorist allies and affiliates could very well attack the United States." The agency heads each provided testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee amidst much partisan bickering regarding President Obama's handling of national security threats. Republicans both on this committee and off have been very outspoken regarding the handling of the Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Many Republicans believe the terrorist should have been tried and prosecuted as an enemy combatant in a military commission rather than a civilian in a criminal court.

Of the topics discussed in the meeting, cyber terrorism was another issue noted as a major threat to national security. "Sensitive information is stolen daily from both government and private sector networks, undermining confidence in our information systems, and in the very information these systems were intended to convey", says National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair. Mr. Blair also says, "We often find persistent, unauthorized, and at times, unattributable presences on exploited networks, the hallmark of an unknown adversary intending to do far more than merely demonstrate skill or mock a vulnerability."

Blair 'used Iraq evidence for smears'

Tony Blair and his closest advisers have used their evidence to the Iraq inquiry to smear those criticising the decision to taken Britain to war, according to one of the former Prime Minister’s most senior diplomats.

In an interview with The Independent, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador in Washington, said he regarded it as a “badge of honour” that he had faced criticism during the inquiry from Mr Blair, his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and his director of communications, Alastair Campbell. He added that turning on opposition was the “modus operandi” of the Blair administration.

All three attacked Sir Christopher during their hearings after he had suggested Mr Blair may have committed troops to an invasion without gaining anything for Britain in return. Sir Christopher said that Mr Blair and President Bush had been alone for long stretches during an April 2002 meeting in Crawford, Texas, and that policy appeared to change after it.

“I said that to this day, I do not know what degree of convergence was, so to say, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch,” he said. “Powell, Campbell and Blair all made an argument as if I had asserted that I knew what had happened and I had been there.”

He said that the tactic was a hallmark of how No 10 operated under Mr Blair. “You turn on dissent, you distort the argument, you claim the other person has said something they never said, and then you seek to discredit it. It’s not only me that has had some of this. It is their modus operandi. Smear and smokescreen.”

Sir Christopher also criticised Mr Blair’s evidence for linking Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda and for apparently urging world leaders to take a hard stance against Iran. “Blair’s strategic approach to his evidence seemed to be a kind of double or quits,” he said. “In other words, it was to say no regrets, I’d do it again, and by the way if I was Prime Minister I’d do Iran also. It’s nonsense about Iran. The strategic beneficiary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq has been Iran. It has enhanced the position of Iran in the region, there is no doubt about it at all.”

He added: “The fact that Blair has entrenched the idea that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were cut from the same cloth was extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve always known that Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 and didn’t like al-Qaeda.”

Sir Christopher, whose BBC series on diplomacy, Getting Our Way, begins on Monday, said that it was now “utterly clear” that Mr Blair had “sub-contracted” the decision to take Britain to war to the White House by telling President Bush that Britain would “be there” if military action was necessary. “It was, in effect, a blank cheque, although at the time it did not seem like it,” he said. He added that Mr Blair botched the chance to push for a delay to the invasion, which could have been used to resolve problems with post-war planning and helped to unite the UN over the invasion.

“I think there were moments at Crawford for example or the Camp David meeting in September 2002 that if Blair had said he could not do this unless we have a clear, detailed plan for what happens after Saddam is toppled, it would have given them real pause. That is where he could have made a real difference,” he said. “It could have made a lot of difference between a French rejection and a French abstention [for military action], or even a French approval.”

US, Karzai split over Taliban talks

On the surface, it would seem unlikely that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who presides over a politically feeble government and is highly dependent on the United States military presence and economic assistance, would defy the United States on the issue of peace negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban insurgency.

But a long-simmering conflict between Karzai and key officials of the Barack Obama administration over that issue came to a head at last week's London conference, when the Afghan president refused to heed US signals to back off his proposal to invite the Taliban leaders to participate in a nationwide peace conference.

The peace negotiations issue is embedded in a deeper conflictover US war strategy, which has provoked broad anger and increasing suspicions of US motives among Afghans, including Karzai himself.

The current source of tension is Karzai's proposal, first made last November, to invite Taliban leaders - including Mullah Omar - to a national loya jirga or grand council meeting aimed at achieving a peace agreement.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by pressing Karzai to demand far-reaching concessions from the Taliban in advance of the meeting. Clinton's conditions on Taliban participation included renunciation of al-Qaeda and of violence and acceptance of the Afghan constitution, conditions that would make it impossible for leaders of the insurgency to agree to if they are interpreted literally.

On November 23, Clinton said the US had "urged caution and real standards that are expected to be met by anyone who is engaged in these conversations, so that whatever process there is can actually further the stability and peace of Afghanistan, not undermine it".

Instead, Karzai publicly asked the US to join in talks with the Taliban. Following the issuance of a statement by Mullah Omar on November 25 that implied the Taliban would negotiate if they did not have to give up their demand for withdrawal of foreign troops, Karzai said there was an "urgent need" for negotiations with the Taliban.

In the face of what he knew was US hostility to the idea, Karzai announced on December 3, "Personally, I would definitely talk to Mullah Omar. Whatever it takes to bring peace to Afghanistan I, as Afghan president, will do it."

But he added, "I am also aware that it cannot be done by me alone without the backing of the international community." That is the phrase Karzai uses to refer to the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.

A few days later, Karzai appeared to give way to US pressure against unconditional talks. He said he wanted to negotiate with Mullah Omar "provided he renounces violence, provided all connections to al-Qaeda and to terrorist networks are cut off and denounced and renounced".

But Karzai announced at the London conference that he would invite the leadership of the Taliban to a loya jirga without specifying that they would have to meet specific conditions in advance of the meeting.

The Obama administration again reacted with scarcely disguised disapproval. A State Department spokesman repeated the US line that "anyone who wants to reconcile and play a more constructive role in Afghanistan's future must accept the constitution, renounce violence and publicly break with extremist groups such as al-Qaeda".

Clinton pointedly avoided endorsing the invitation and did not use the word "reconciliation", which is the term in US counter-insurgency doctrine reserved for negotiations with insurgent leaders. Those conditions for participation in negotiations would represent demands for concessions by the Taliban on all key issues before negotiations even begin.

Karzai showed no signs of turning back from his intention to meet with the Taliban without conditions. Two days after the London conference, Karzai announced that he would convene the peace conference in less than six weeks.

And in an implicit response to US demands for conditions on participation in negotiations, Karzai called on the Taliban not to pose the condition that US troops must be removed before negotiations could begin.

In fact, a statement by Mullah Omar on November 25 did not say foreign troops had to be withdrawn before peace talks could begin, but only that the Taliban would not participate in "negotiations which prolongs and legitimizes the invader's military presence ..."

Significantly, the Taliban spokesman did not dismiss Karzai's invitation out of hand, as might have been expected, but announced that the Taliban would make a decision "soon" on attending the conference.

Asia Times Online has reported that the Taliban would be prepared to engage in talks immediately if the US were to shelve its plans for a surge of an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, (See Taliban take on the US's surge February 3, 2010.)

The growing divergence of the US's and Karzai's policy toward the Taliban appears to be embedded in a wider clash over US war policy.

Karzai has not been as enthusiastic as the Obama administration about the prospects for weakening the Taliban by offering economic incentives for individual commanders and troops to abandon the insurgency, which he has viewed as competing with his own emphasis on reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban leadership.

In an interview with al-Jazeera in early January, Karzai said he would not request more money to reintegrate individual Taliban fighters into the government side.

Instead, Karzai said he would seek to constrain US military forces in the country. "We're going to ask the international community to end night-time raids on Afghan homes," he said, "to stop arresting Afghans, to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties. We're going to ask them not to have Afghan prisoners."

Karzai's public demands for an end to US night raids on homes and continued arrests and detentions aligns his position with that of Taliban officials who have said those would be among the demands they would raise in peace talks.

Karzai's commitment to a peace accord with the Taliban has been influenced by his own deep suspicions of US motives in Afghanistan, according to leading Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir, a former aide to the Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al-Qaeda in September 2001.

In an interview with Inter Press Service, Mir said he believed Karzai's opposition to US strategy was intensified by the Obama administration's openly declared hostility toward him in early 2009, and that Karzai had now embraced a conspiracy theory popular in Afghanistan, that the US had ulterior motives in its military intervention in the country.

Mir said he attended a meeting with Karzai and about 30 Afghan political analysts several weeks ago in which the president presented his conspiracy theory about the US presence to his guests.

"He thinks the United States is here not to fight the Taliban but for something else," Mir said, and "wants to convince everybody of this".

In November 2008, Karzai outraged the George W Bush administration by offering a guarantee of the safety of Mullah Omar if he agreed to attend peace negotiations in Kabul. The State Department spokesman ridiculed the idea, saying, "One can't imagine" that there would be "any safe passage with respect to US forces".

Karzai then defiantly posed the choice for "the international community" in a news conference as being "remove me or leave if they disagree".

Karzai has also proposed taking the names of Taliban leaders off the United Nations "black list" in order to allow Taliban officials to travel abroad for the purpose of negotiations.

Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai, said in January that Karzai would "probably" ask the United Nations to take Mullah Omar's name off the "black list" of Taliban and former Taliban leaders.

At the London conference, Karzai requested only that five ex-Taliban figures be taken off the list, but he indicated that he would ask for more deletions in the future.

The US efforts to discourage Karzai from entering into talks with the Taliban should not be taken as evidence of opposition to such negotiations in the future, according to an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. The Obama administration appears to want to postpone peace talks until mid-2011 - after it has sought to weaken the Taliban by adding 30,000 more troops.

US should encourage talks on Kashmir: Mullen

Asserting that improved Indo-Pak relationship is key to success of the US war against terror in the Af-Pak region, top American military commander Admiral Mike Mullen has said the Obama Administration should encourage back channel talks between the two countries on Kashmir.

"As part of our long-term regional approach, we should welcome all steps these important nations (India and Pakistan) take to regenerate their 'back channel' process on Kashmir," Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a prepared testimony before the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mullen, who made a joint appearance with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates before the committee yesterday, told US Senators that the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the epicentre of global terrorism.

"This is where al-Qaeda plans terrorist attacks against the US and our partners? And from where the Taliban leadership targets coalition troops in Afghanistan," he said.

Pakistan's ongoing military operations against extremists in these areas are critical to preventing al-Qaeda and associated groups from gaining ground, Mullen noted.

"In Pakistan, the extremist threat, a fractious political system, economic weakness and long-standing tensions with India continue to threaten stability," Mullen said, adding the Obama Administration is working to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan and re-establish trust lost between the two countries.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Afghan president to meet Saudi king over peace talk with Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai left for Saudi Arabia Tuesday to discuss his new reintegration plan aimed at luring Taliban away from violence.

The president is scheduled to visit religious sites before meeting King Abdullah, Karzai's office said in a statement.

Karzai is expected to ask the Saudi ruler to play a role in guiding the peace process, it said.

He earlier called on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to play a role in peace talks with Taliban militants, who have waged a bloody war against his government and more than 110,000 NATO-led troops stationed in the country.

Under a new peace scheme, which was supported by the Western countries in London last week, the government would provide protection, jobs and vocational training for Taliban fighters in return for their renunciation of violence.

Karzai's government also showed readiness to initiate peace negotiation with Taliban leaders who have severed ties with the Al Qaeda network.

The initiative is likely to interest Saudi Arabia, which has longed for ways to isolate Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, who is accused of carrying out attacks in the holy land.

Intelligence chief: Al-Qaida wans to attack US

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says Al-Qaida will continue to try to attack the United States until Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri are dead.

Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta are among top intelligence officials outlining to Congress Tuesday the main threats facing the United States. Their annual threat assessment comes just weeks after a failed attack to bring down an airliner over Detroit. International terrorism again heads the list.

Blair also said the U.S. still does not know the intended targets of suspected terrorist Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in September and charged with plotting to attack New York City with homemade bombs. And Blair said U.S. intelligence continues to believe that alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj Nidal Hassan is a homegrown extremist rather than a terrorist who worked with militants abroad.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Afghan Official Says Talks with Taliban Are Ongoing

The Afghan official in charge of reconciliation acknowledged Monday that the government had been in talks for some time with Taliban leaders to bring them into the government and end the war, dismissing the Taliban’s denials.

The official — Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top security adviser to President Hamid Karzai — made the statement at a news conference to discuss last week’s international Afghanistan conference in London and later elaborated on his announcement in an interview.

“There are some contacts and these contacts will continue, on the local, regional, national and broader political level, but it’s too early to speak about the outcome of these contacts,” Mr. Stanekzai said in response to a question on whether the government was in talks with Taliban leaders.

Later, in the interview, he dismissed Taliban denials of any such contacts. “They are continuing to say this, but it’s something they say in the media, but this is not a fact,” he said.

Mr. Karzai has said he would welcome talks with top Taliban figures like their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

American officials, while supporting the Afghan government’s reconciliation efforts, have ruled out talking to hard-liners like Mullah Omar, whom they see as too close to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Stanekzai declined to say specifically with whom the government was negotiating. “It’s too early to say; it will ignite a lot of confusion,” he said. “We need a space for confidence building.”

The government is still working out the details of specific proposals to ensure security and jobs for Taliban members who change sides. Once those plans have been revealed, he said, “Then we can talk about this in more detail.”

In addition, Mr. Stanekzai said, many of the Taliban leaders were fearful of retaliation from other Taliban members. “We have to respect their safety as well,” he said.

At the London conference last Thursday, which brought together 50 allied and donor countries, reconciliation with and reintegration of insurgents was one of the leading topics. Mr. Karzai publicly invited the Taliban to join talks with the government, and said they would be included at a nationwide tribal assembly he has scheduled in six weeks.

Officials make a distinction between “reconciliation,” or talking to the Taliban leadership, and “reintegration,” which involves persuading lower-level followers to change sides. Both efforts, however, include providing positions and jobs to insurgents who change sides. The American military has been much more actively involved in reintegration efforts.

Last month, Kai Eide, the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, met with a group of Taliban representatives, according to American and United Nations officials. Taliban leadership denied the reports.

“The leadership council once again emphasizes the continuation of the Islamic jihad against all invaders,” the Taliban said in a statement.

“If they deny the peace process, they are against the nation of Afghanistan,” Mr. Stanekzai said. “In Afghanistan, nobody is against the peace process. How could they stand against the peace process?”

There have been no formal peace negotiations since the war began in 2001. Publicly, the Taliban refuse to talk to the government until all foreign forces leave, while the government insists that the Taliban accept the Afghan Constitution.

At Monday’s news conference, also attended by the foreign and defense ministers as well as other officials, Mr. Stanekzai said, “We are working to find a way out of this that is not just military.”

As a part of that, he said, the government is “willing to incorporate various groups into Afghanistan’s government.” Also on Monday, Haider Reza, the director of the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan, which is financed by the United Nations, announced that the Afghan government would not be able to meet its mine-clearing goals because donor countries had not released all the money set aside for the work.

The country has received only $163 million of the $242 million pledged for the program year that begins March 21, Mr. Reza said.

Afghanistan and the international community pledged in 2006 to clear 70 percent of all mines by 2011 and 100 percent by 2013. “I can already now say Afghanistan will be forced to ask for an extension,” he said.

Mr. Reza attributed the shortfall to budgetary problems in donor countries stemming from the economic crisis. He said security problems in some parts of Afghanistan were also a problem.

In southern Afghanistan, three suicide bombers attempted to enter the Kabul Bank building in Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, where police officers were lined up to receive their monthly pay. Police officers fired on them and two of the attackers detonated their explosives while the third escaped, according to Muhammad Jan Rasolyar, a spokesman for the provincial government.

One police officer was slightly wounded.

The international forces reported that three soldiers were killed Monday, two in southern Afghanistan during a firefight and another from a roadside bomb in western Afghanistan. The soldiers’ nationalities were not identified.

A United States soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Monday, according to a news release from the American-led NATO coalition. Thirty American soldiers died last month, according to the Web site of, an independent organization that tracks military casualties, double the 15 who died the previous January. Fifteen other allied soldiers also died last month.

Seven Taliban insurgents were reported killed in Helmand Province after a NATO airstrike on a safe house in Musa Qala District during an operation with the Afghan Army, said Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the Afghan National Army commander in the neighboring province of Kandahar.

Terrorism, insurgency need to be tackled with firm hand: PM

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday emphasised that “terrorism, insurgency and extremism need to be tackled with a firm and yet sensitive hand” as a requirement for rapid economic growth.

“It is one of the primary responsibilities of any government to ensure the rule of law. In addition, an atmosphere of peace and communal harmony is also a pre-requisite for rapid economic growth,” Manmohan Singh said while inaugurating a two-day conference of state chief secretaries here.

The first of a kind conference aimed at formalising the process of interaction with states and union territories is expected to serve as a standing forum for exchange of views and provide an occasion for interaction on internal matters.

“The law and order machinery has to be sensitized to the key security concerns that affect us. Terrorism, insurgency and extremism need to be tackled with a firm and yet sensitive hand,” said the prime minister.

“You have to be aware not only of local and regional happenings but also of pan-India and trans-border developments.”

Over the next two days, issues relating to the latest trends in technology, emerging global challenges and opportunities and key security concerns and the role of state governments would be discussed. Global developments that have a bearing on the country would also be deliberated upon.

Monday, February 1, 2010

PAKISTAN: 'Anti-terrorist' fertilizer ban hinders farmers

Along a road leading to the Bajaur tribal area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, two men cast stealthy glances around them as they guide donkeys carrying bags covered with blankets.

As they approach a check-post manned by Pakistani soldiers, the men scramble up a hillside with their consignments, hoping to make their way around the barrier undetected. The men are not carrying drugs or weapons, per se, but outlawed plant fertilizers which they hope to sell to farmers in Bajaur.

The ban on ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizers was imposed in Malakand Division - comprising the Dir, Swat, Chitral and Malakand districts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) - in November 2009 by the NWFP government, following reports that those chemicals were used by militants to make explosives.

"Fertilizers which contain nitrates have been used by militants to make homemade bombs. This is why the restriction has been placed," Malakand Commissioner Abdul Karim Khattak said.

Neighbouring Afghanistan imposed a similar ban last week and is already facing a barrage of criticism from farmers.

Hunger threat

The restrictions were also imposed by authorities in Bajaur, which adjoins Malakand.

In Khar, the principal town of Bajaur, 40-year-old farmer Mobeen Khan told IRIN that the ban was affecting crop yields and food security.

"Without these, we cannot farm our lands," Khan said. "Already crops have been badly affected and many farmers are desperate to save what they can. We need the crops not only to sell but to feed our own families, or they will starve. There is no choice now but to buy fertilizers at inflated rates from smugglers who bring them in from neighbouring districts, especially Lower Dir."

While the ban is supposed to be only for fertilizers that contain nitrates, Khan alleged that all kinds of fertilizers had been banned in Bajaur and shops previously selling them had been closed down. "In some cases this is just a means used to harass people or extort bribes," Khan said.

NWFP Minister of Agriculture Arbab Ayub Jan told the media soon after the ban was imposed that the government would provide fertilizer to farmers through Model Farm Services Centres (MFSC), where the identity of buyers would be checked to "ensure they are farmers".

Abdul Uthmankhel, a 65-year-old local farmer, said the government's decision to sell through MFSCs was "pointless in Bajaur" as there were only "two such centres in the whole agency with very few members".

"The fertilizer ban simply means we will suffer even more. Crops of wheat and maize are being affected. When we were young men we knew how to manage without fertilizer, but the farmers of today are completely dependent on them," Uthmankhel said.

Muhammad Jamal, head of the Soil and Environmental Sciences Department at NWFP Agricultural University in Peshawar, said "local farmers have been using such fertilizers for decades. Their lack of availability will greatly affect crop production."

"Even my potato crops are less than usual. On the hillsides here we only have small areas of land to farm and if the crops fails it really affects us badly," said Wali Khan, 50, a local subsistence farmer. He said buying smuggled fertilizer "is simply not an option because the rates are too high".

Bajaur, where a military operation has been ongoing since late 2008, is one of the areas of Pakistan worst hit by militant activity. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at the end of 2009, some 250,000 people were displaced from Bajaur.

The agency has also seen a succession of militant attacks, the latest when a suicide bomber killed 16 people at a market in Khar on 30 January.

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